16 Business Leaders Share How an MBA Changed Their Careers

The University of Sydney, NSW

Is an MBA really worth it? Its a question that often arises when it comes to taking the next step in your career. Here we asked 16 Australian business leaders to share their experiences on how a Masters in Business Administration transformed their professional journeys...

Sue Keay
CEO, Queensland AI Hub and chair, Robotics Australia

Sue Keay CEO, Queensland AI Hub and chair, Robotics Australia

MBA, University of Queensland Business School, 2018

“In our leadership unit we looked at how to analyse people dynamics. One of the biggest challenges I face as a woman in a male-dominated industry is that I’m always part of the ‘out’ group. Until I did my MBA, I didn’t appreciate how that influenced my decision-making but when I was able to step back and analyse the dynamics during meetings, it became clear I would never influence people over to my point of view if the ‘in’ groups were against it. I realised I had to be much more strategic about lobbying individuals to support my idea before it ever came to a meeting, because once a meeting starts, the dynamics mean that the ‘in’ group people are not going to be swayed from a pre-existing opinion. It sounds very obvious when I say it but the power of a lot of this business theory is that often these simple-sounding solutions can have a very significant impact.”

Richard Kimber
Founder and CEO, Daisee

Richard Kimber Founder and CEO, Daisee

MBA, Macquarie University Graduate School of Management, 1992

“Having a clear strategy makes choices obvious – this guides priorities as well as resource allocation. It also helps to sort out important versus urgent issues.

Michelle Gallaher
CEO, Opyl

Michelle Gallaher CEO, Opyl

Global Executive MBA, Monash University Business School, 2019

“I learned the critical difference between incremental innovation and genuine disruption. I’ve worked in the pharmaceutical, biotech and medtech sectors for 25 years and we always talk about innovation, but healthcare is a conservative space. The MBA gave me a new way of thinking and very clear, functional business models to develop products and services in the digital economy in health. At one point I was listening to a lecturer and I just started rewriting my business plan, because it made perfect sense.

Before the MBA, I wouldn’t have had the courage, the tools or frameworks to structure my thinking to design a business solution. I’d been talking about unaffordable healthcare, clinical trials and data publicly for years – I just didn’t know how to solve things. I wasn’t able to marry it all until I had the intellectual freedom to explore it in a really safe place, with the input of the alumni around me who egged me on. I deliberately chose an MBA on digital transformation and life sciences – it was very applied and it was in a global context, which I needed to make it work. Distance is no disadvantage in the digital economy.”

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James Ensor CEO, BHP Foundation

James Ensor
CEO, BHP Foundation

Senior Executive Program, Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, 2007

Executive education expands the way you think about the world – you’re working with people that you otherwise wouldn’t have had exposure to. It gave me the ability to think in a ‘systems’ way: How can you affect the greatest outcomes and impact, whether that’s in business, government or the philanthropic sector? I’m in the privileged position of being a ‘startup CEO’ here and that learning has heavily influenced the philanthropic strategy of the BHP Foundation. One of our core hypotheses is that sustainable change can only be achieved when you can build collaboration across different sectors.

A practical example is one of our global projects, Opening Extractives, which addresses corruption in tenders for government contracts. Billions of dollars is squandered each year through rigged bidding processes and backroom deals between corrupt civil servants and tenderers. We made a relatively small investment of anchor funding – $5 million – and worked with an NGO, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), across 15 resource-rich countries, the logic being that the majority of money coming into government treasuries is from extractive industries.

EITI works to bring government-procurement systems onto transparent online platforms. That might sound really boring but when this is introduced, the number of companies that then have confidence that the system is not being rigged [so it’s safe to bid for tenders] can increase by up to 20 per cent. The average successful tender price drops by 15 to 20 per cent, because there’s more competition. In Colombia, we exposed a price-fixing scheme around the provision of school meals for a million kids. Because of that reform, those kids now get higher quality food at orders of magnitude for lower prices. In Chile, the price of paracetamol has decreased significantly for citizens due to this online tender system.

Our small investment has leveraged billions of dollars across 15 countries in savings and benefits. That’s an example of what I call system-changing philanthropic venture capital. You could spend that same $5 million and build, say, 10 houses for a community but you can see the quantum of return relative to investment when you take a systems perspective. That deep cross-sector collaboration drives reform at a systems level across multiple countries.”

Phillipa Harrison Managing director, Tourism Australia

Phillipa Harrison
Managing director, Tourism Australia

MBA (Executive), AGSM, University of NSW Business School, 2007

“Coming from a marketing background, it gave me the ability to have a broader view, particularly in terms of my financial literacy. In the past year we’ve had to change our resourcing – both human and financial – several times and my MBA definitely helped me make quick and confident decisions, to make the business case and communicate it to the board.

It also helped me understand that being a good leader is not just about IQ but also EQ. The science behind it is super-interesting and it gave me the confidence to be that sort of leader. EQ is what distinguishes great leaders and good bosses. If I ever go back and do a doctorate, it will be in EQ – the world needs more of it. I’ve been drawing on it a lot over this period as we’ve been managing an industry in the worst crisis of its life. It helps me be a better leader and it’s helped us get through this.”

Steve Jurkovich CEO, Kiwibank

Steve Jurkovich
CEO, Kiwibank

Global Executive MBA, University of Sydney Business School, 2011

“It gave me a much deeper appreciation of how much context influences the way you see the world. Experiencing different cultures and working with people across different industries really opened my eyes to the fact that there’s more than ‘one right’. I learnt to suppress the desire to try to convince people and spend more time understanding their context.

In the transition to working from home with COVID-19, there was a massive acceleration of trust and flexibility but there were also leaders struggling with the loss of perceived control. You need to seek to understand different perspectives – some people felt anxious about having to be at home and their leaders felt anxious about them being at home. When you spend time thinking about how other people are seeing the world, you can get to a much better and richer place.”

Emma Weston CEO and co-founder, AgriDigital

Emma Weston
CEO and co-founder, AgriDigital

MBA, AGSM, University of NSW Business School, 2006

“The power of networks was by far the most important learning and asset that I took away. The most recent application for me was during capital raising. I could tap into networks for intel on potential investors and also get feedback on my investor deck – free peer-to-peer feedback is always useful. And we’re in a continual talent war so being able to use networks when you’re recruiting for key roles is gold. You’re talking to people who understand you and the business you’re building, because our relationships didn’t end with the MBA.”

Matt Comyn CEO and managing director, Commonwealth Bank

Matt Comyn
CEO and managing director, Commonwealth Bank

Global Executive MBA, University of Sydney Business School, 2013

“The MBA provided me with the opportunity to think more strategically based on a range of different experiences and to apply this thinking to challenges in my own industry. We are focused on taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital economy and how to reimagine products and services for our customers. From a growth perspective, this is about moving beyond customer service to deliver more rewarding experiences and better outcomes that build a deeper and more trusted relationship with our customers. That’s a very exciting prospect.”

Elaine Ko Former chief executive of Health Purchasing Victoria

Elaine Ko
Former chief executive of Health Purchasing Victoria

Executive MBA, Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, 2016

“I wanted to understand what I know – and what I still need to know. I realised one must really understand oneself, on a personal level and on a business level. It’s probably the hardest part of being a leader, because it requires a huge amount of courage and humility. I benefited tremendously from the executive coaching, which I’d never had. I have young children so at the end of last year I decided to take a career break to spend time with my family. The MBA planted the seed. One of the executive coaches said to me, ‘Elaine, you need to slow down to speed up.’ I thought it was ridiculous at the time; now I understand. The COVID-19 experience was a wake-up call for everybody.”

Brendan Wright CEO, FAST Group

Brendan Wright

Global Executive MBA, Monash University Business School, 2019

“Across our MBA, we had to apply business models and frameworks through genuine, serious consulting projects for real businesses, working on real problems. We did that with business strategy, innovation, digital transformation and international business, taking what we were learning in the program to design and implement strategies. The whole ‘always learning’ approach to business, and having a global context, has enabled me to adapt and grow in a sustainable way, particularly in this era when disruptions and new opportunities are coming all the time.

The FAST Group was previously owned by NAB and we sold it into private ownership. It was complex: working with the NAB Group, doing the due diligence, pitching our wares, finding prospective buyers, doing the deal – all through COVID-19. I would not have been able to bring that together without the learnings I got from that Global Executive MBA. It gave me a different level of confidence and a broader, more diverse awareness of the challenges we might face.”

Kym Pfitzner CEO, Australian Red Cross

Kym Pfitzner
CEO, Australian Red Cross

MBA, Deakin University Business School, 2018

“After 30 years of work experience, mostly in senior executive roles across Asia Pacific, I believed work experience trumped academic theory. But after I semi-retired at an early age, I reflected on a desire to seek answers to questions on effective organisational leadership. I enrolled in a Master of Leadership degree at Deakin and after the initial shock of the workload, it dawned on me that there was lots I didn’t know.

The academic learning was joining the dots of my work experience. This drove me to undertake an MBA and I’m now at the helm of an amazing organisation of more than 30,000 people that touches every part of Australia. It’s undergoing a strategic transformation but, thanks to my MBA learnings and past experience, it isn’t daunting – rather, it’s an exciting time to help steer the organisation. The MBA learnings tied in the importance of people, strategy, how culture enables or hinders, and the need for the organisation to be fully aligned to its primary customers.”

Preeti Bajaj CEO and managing director,The Adecco Group

Preeti Bajaj
CEO and managing director, The Adecco Group

Master of Applied Finance, Macquarie University, 2016

“Learning is across a continuum and different things are important at different stages of your career. In Applied Finance, we did a subject called Venture Capital and Private Equity. Shortly after, I was sent to Silicon Valley by Schneider Electric to set up the first ever venture funded by Schneider Electric Ventures and I became CEO. That was a direct moment of setting up a new business, understanding the venture-funding model, creating a full playbook of what that business could become over time. I was applying everything from the classroom to real life, including the language.”

Vicki Brady CFO and group executive, strategy & finance, Telstra

Vicki Brady
CFO and group executive, strategy & finance, Telstra

Master of Science in Management, Stanford University Graduate School of Business, 2004

“I knew that to move into more senior management roles I needed some broader experience, particularly in strategy development and marketing. I chose Stanford for my Masters because of its links to the tech sector and Silicon Valley; I really wanted to understand what it took to develop a strategy inside a tech company. The Masters really reinforced for me that you have to start with the customer. So when it came to developing strategy, ultimately you needed to understand the customer and then how you’re differentiating. That’s what drives me, even in the role I’m in today.

One of the professors in my degree had worked with Andy Grove from Intel. I got a lot of great thinking out of him sharing that experience. One of the radical things the leaders of Intel did was ask themselves: What if we sacked ourselves and were re-employed to start again? What would we do differently? Grove’s book Only the Paranoid Survive was quite powerful for me in that learning process.”

Evan Parker CEO, Viostream

Evan Parker
CEO, Viostream

MBA, Monash University Business School, 2017

“I did my MBA after 10 years of service with the Australian Army, working with lots of people from similar backgrounds and the same training, following the same procedures and doctrine. In my cohort at Monash, we had about 40 per cent females – I came from a combat corps in the army, where I didn’t work with any women. We had about 30 per cent international students and people from marketing and sales, engineering tech development and software. I’d only ever worked in a microcosm of similar people with similar backgrounds. In the MBA, you learn how to lead diverse teams. It opened my eyes to: ‘Hey, Evan, it’s not just the military way.’ You need to adapt your leadership training and development to be truly effective in business.”

Fiona Beermier CEO, Ngala

Fiona Beermier
CEO, Ngala

MBA, Curtin University Business School, 2013

“I’ve always worked in the not-for-profit area. Ngala has been around for 130 years – we’re the oldest not-for-profit in WA, providing early learning and development services, which is commonly referred to as day care. We have just partnered with an aged-care provider to launch an intergenerational model in a brand-new facility, where families can have their children in a place where not only educators but older adults will come into their lives. The MBA taught me it’s not about doing more of the same, it’s about taking opportunities – and even risks – for the future of the organisation.”

Kim Hansen Director of emergency services, St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital

Kim Hansen
Director of emergency services, St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital

MBA, Deakin University Business School, 2018

“I learned that every problem, challenge or change needs a very structured, strategic approach. The MBA gives you the toolkit to do that. At the beginning of 2020, as the pandemic came into town, every little thing that we did had to change: how we book in patients, see them, move them through the hospital, do tests… and emergency doctors were faced with a threat to their own health. We had to learn a lot of new skills. Without the MBA, I wouldn’t have quite had the skills to be able to lead and understand that everyone’s in a different situation in terms of their confidence or uncertainty.”

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